Soaring Over the Alps

Soaring Over the Alps [home]

July 2009

All good things must come to an end.

My friend and soaring buddy, Joe Parrish predicted that my two-year company assignment to Switzerland would evolve into a permanent relocation. This was not to be. In April my family moved back to the U.S., leaving me in my empty, lonely apartment for the final three months of my assignment. It wasn't completely empty, I had a bed, my computer, a couch, two pet rabbits to keep me company, but no TV. The end is nigh.

I spent my evenings socializing and drinking with my coworkers and friends; I spent the weekends at the airport. There were no forces at home vying for my attention or “encouraging” me to do chores. A kitchen pass need not be requested nor given for every weekend that I wanted to fly.I used this free time to get checked out in the club Discus B and to further hone my skills in the local dialect of Bernese German, "Bärndütsch." The remainder of my assignment in Switzerland was all planned, move out of my apartment on June 20 and move into a tent.

The Segelfluggruppe Bern (SGBern) moves the majority of their gliders to a little valley town in the Alps named Saanen for four weeks each year. I was to finish out my assignment in Switzerland living in a tent, flying seven days a week, if possible. I had paid for what was called a "Jahrespauschale," which means "yearly flat fee" for unlimited use of the gliders. No rental fees were applied to my flying, I only needed to pay for the tows. With the flat-fee structure in hand I was going to take full advantage of the two DG-300 or three Discus B gliders at my disposal.

Saturday, June 20—The club moved the gliders from Bern to Saanen. It rained. The movers had moved everything out of the house, with the exception of one bag of laundry, my air mattress and tent. I didn’t have to move out of the apartment until the final exit inspection on Wednesday, so I slept in a dry and empty apartment.

Tuesday, June 22—Up until then it was rain, wind, wind, rain. My soaring vacation was being ruined by inclement weather. On Monday I managed to get in a quick pair of familiarization flights at the airfield. Last year I had a three-hour flight with the ever-present Paul Keller over a little hill called "Wispile" (vee-SCHPEE-ooh-ah). With that introductory flight and two pattern flights this year I was cleared to solo any of the single seat gliders I wanted. There was no lift or interesting weather on Monday, the perfect weather for my check-flights.

Sunday, June 28—The weather and exit inspection for the apartment whittled away at my flying vacation. I finally got a good soaring day for a long flight. At my direction the tow pilot took me to my most familiar area. My first solo flight over the Alps would start over Wispile where I had flown a year before. I took advantage of a very reliable "restaurant thermal" there. Earlier in the week, during the bad weather, I had taken a gondola ride to the top of the mountain to see what it looked like from the ground.

The view is much more satisfying from the air, even though there were some adorable Llamas grazing at the top of Wispile. I flew down the ridge to the south. The clouds were not being cooperative, they would not permit climbing to the tops of the mountains. I flew conservatively at first and stretched my legs to fly from Wispile to Launen and then over to a village called Grüenebüel. I turned north to Zweisimmen and back toward Saanen. I was chased down by gray clouds and made an uneventful landing after three hours and 47 minutes.

As the days went on the weather could have been better. At times I wasn’t sure if I was in Ireland or Switzerland.

The day would start misty and rainy, and stay that way all day. Later I couldn’t decide whether I was in Brazil or Switzerland. The days were hot and the flying day ended precisely at 3:45 p.m. with a thunderstorm.

Due to my conservative flying I was always on the ground before the rain started. Others got caught in the rain (but landed uneventfully). In the 17 days I was living in a tent it rained at some time in the day on 14 days.

July 6—Despite the rain I did have some excellent flights. On the final day before I was to fly back to the United States a westerly wind set in. The day started rainy and dreary but cleared out around 1 p.m. We all made late day takeoffs and I was one of the last. There was no thermal lift to be found; an overcast deck of clouds snuffed out any surface heating to generate thermals.

However, the winds were strong enough and the mountains plentiful. All I had to do was pick a mountain that faced the winds and I could make some excellent ridge soaring. I spent an hour on a very small ridge with the club’s Duo-Discus, which was giving a demo ride. The majority of this flight was just above 1700 meters MSL and never got above 1800. The FLARM beeped more than was necessary but it was still welcome to have. I ventured a bit upwind from the quite marginal ridge lift and found some weak lift over a large area. I treated this 0.5 meter per second lift gently and managed to climb above 2000 meters MSL. This was definitely wave lift. I patiently worked this weak lift above 2500 meters and started looking at the overcast clouds not much higher. I headed upwind.

By this time all the other gliders had started to land. The wind was not terribly strong and I found my way into

another batch of wave lift, this much closer to the mountains just downwind of the mountain "Vanil Noir." I easily

climbed from 2000 MSL to 2591 MSL but was met again by clouds. It was getting late. I had not heard any radio

chatter for a while. I flew downwind to Saanen.

"Hotel-Bravo three-zero-four-three, Campo Saanen, report position and altitude, over.”

"Campo Saanen, three-zero-four-three, reporting two thousand five hundred meters, five kilometers east of Saanen, over"

The situation was not spoken, but understood. "We on the ground want to eat, but you are still flying." There was a club rule, or a club custom, I’m not sure which, that any pilots landing after 7 p.m. are "on their own." The club does not have any obligation to drive down to pick you up or help you put away the glider. I put the nose down to 150 km/h with the spoilers open. I could feel the force of the airbrakes on my feet as I was standing on the rudder pedals. The GPS log showed that I was descending at 15 meters per second. I ended the flight uneventfully. I was quite full of the sober realization that this was my last flight in the Alps.

Not many Americans get the chance to fit in with the Swiss, understand their dialect, and be one of their group. I feel that I’m truly lucky to have had this experience.